With her stunning drama Hope, Norwegian writer/director Maria Sødahl artfully uses a woman’s cancer diagnosis as the portal though which she examines nothing less than life, loss, marriage and mortality.
“I am not very interested in cancer,” says Sødahl in a Zoom interview from her home in Oslo. Hope is deeply personal: Sødahl’s own cancer diagnosis forced her to take a nine-year hiatus from filmmaking after her acclaimed debut, Limbo, set in 1970s Trinidad. About four years ago, as Sødahl found herself ready to write again, her life-altering experience was something she simply could not avoid exploring in a script.
“When I realized death was cancelled and I was in grief over not being able to do what I wanted to do and what I was eager to do, then I slowly tried to write again because that didn’t cost anyone any money,” she says. “In the beginning, it was hard to concentrate for more than an hour. It was slow and very exhausting. But I had fun.”
In revisiting the experiences that eventually became Hope, Sødahl says it was important to her to be as brutally honest and unsentimental as possible. “It’s really about not manipulating anything and just being precise and unsentimental. That was the job I had to do. … Everything is crystalized when you have a certain distance from it but I think [writing] was also a way to keep myself curious.
“I never thought about having an audience. I realized that [I had to be] very brutally honest because that was the most interesting thing, and to tell it from my point of view and [examine] what is memory, what is true.”
Hope, Norway’s entry for this year’s Best International Feature Film Oscar, is centered on Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig), a choreographer whose career and life is upended when she’s informed over the Christmas holidays that her cancer has recurred and spread to her brain. Anja, her longtime partner Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård), and their blended family face this frightening diagnosis with emotions that run the gamut, all played out with a liberal dash of absurdity especially since Anja’s treatment regime includes steroids that make her talkative in confronting Tomas about their relationship.
Sødahl jokes that early on she described Hope as a combination of “Fanny and Alexander on steroids” and a road movie. “It’s a character drama that’s both intimate and overpopulated with people; there are many characters at the same time,” she says.
But the intensity and intimacy owes much to the film’s two powerful leads. Although Sødahl knew Hovig and Skarsgård, neither actor knew each other before they were cast. “We spent a couple of weeks just talking, getting to know each other well,” says Sødahl. “[Hovig and Skarsgård] are different in the way they work but they have in common that they are also unsentimental which was totally necessary [to the film’s vision]. We laughed a lot trying to find the black spots of these characters so we started filming rehearsals and worked our way through. We had different energies for different scenes; it is both a fast film and a slow film. For some scenes, [Anja] is on steroids and for other scenes, she’s not. It is tricky with a main character who is drugged.”
Earlier this year, Nicole Kidman secured the rights for a Hope remake as an American television series that will be released by Amazon. Sødahl was asked to join the directing team but instead will serve as a consulting producer, she says.
“I lived it, I’d written it and I directed it,” says Sødahl. “It would be horrible to have the original writer and director there. I am curious to see what they do.” She understands that Kidman’s Hope will be “something different” not just because it’s an American version but because it won’t have the compressed time frame which added to the film’s intensity.
Sødahl’s next projects are a far cry from Hope’s textured tale of life and love. She’s writing a script focused on a 19 year-old woman traveling in Mexico. Sødahl’s plans to conduct research in that country had to be scuttled because of COVID-19 but she’s still committed to the script. She also has a project in development with two Danish writers. “It’s outside my comfort zone and that feels good,” she says. “It’s a drama with satirical undertones about the European refugee crisis in 2015 so it’s tricky. It’s very different from Limbo and Hope”
Hope has been embraced in Europe and on the festival circuit and Sødahl expects its universal themes will resonate with US audiences too, now that the film is opening here. “The beauty of working with memory is you crystalize things and get to the essence of the emotion,” she says. “I could feel that audiences responded to the same things — the shame, sorrow, longing — no matter where [the film screened].”